‘The Kissing Game’ Chapter 10, Short Story Serialisation by Milly Reynolds

man and woman standing in front of brown grass field kissing each other
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The following day, Elena spent most of the morning lying on the sofa reading, fighting off any weariness by making herself cups of tea. In the end, Michael had gone to work a little later than normal, though not until he had made sure she was feeling better.

Around eleven, just after she had re-opened Mary’s book, she turned the page – and her heart skipped a big beat. 

“My goodness.”

Before her was a painting and a very familiar face. She knew those eyes, as cute as a dog’s, but as sharp as the devil. And those lips, too, and particularly the thick, flowing hair. Even his shirt, or coat, black with the strange gold stripes and buttons; she recalled it from that dream in the church. He had his arms folded, with a slight but telling smile, as if he knew something. On the top left of the portrait was a date, 1585, and what appeared to be his age, 21.

There was a knock on the door. Elena knew who it would be. She got to her feet slowly and walked to the door.

“Mary, you’d better come in and look at what I’ve just come across.”

Without saying a word, Mary followed into the living room, where Elena handed over the open book she’d borrowed from her friend.

“Mary, this is him, I’m sure.”

“Damn and blast, I haven’t got my specs with me,” Mary held the book a little further away from her. “Oh, my… are you sure, Dear?” Mary immediately sat down and drew a deep breath.

“Absolutely.”

“I should’ve known this, something was bugging me.”

Elena walked over, pointing at the portrait. “My Latin is very rusty, what does this verse mean?”

Mary had gone almost white and was holding her chest. “I’m too old for this. Let me see. Oh, Elena.”

“What is it?”

“It means, ‘what feeds me… destroys me’.”

“He said that I had destroyed him.”

“How? When?”

Elena sat down beside her friend. “Last night, and then he died.”

Mary lay the book open on the coffee table and took her hand. “You poor girl. I’ve seen this portrait so many times before, why didn’t I think of it?”

“Where have you seen it?”

“Didn’t I tell you? I went to Corpus Christi College Cambridge in the late seventies. And this, my Dear, is the notorious, even infamous playwright Christopher Marlowe, though he was often called Kit.”

Elena’s shock was now turning to embarrassment. “I don’t think I know too much about him, if I’m honest.” 

Mary was shaking her head. “No, if you don’t have a strong interest in literature you might not have.”

“So what do you mean by notorious?”

“Oh, he was supposedly a brawler, a bragger, highly controversial, but a literary genius as well.”

“How does that work?”

“Well, for one thing I don’t believe all the stories.”

“Go on.”

“It’s a long story, but he was said to be an atheist and a counterfeiter, despite the fact that he spent six years at Cambridge studying divinity. But his first play, Tamburlaine, rocked the Elizabethan stage around the mid 1580s. It was so popular, he had to do a part two.”

“Mary, I never knew this.”

“And he wrote other plays, great plays, like Edward the Second, The Jew of Malta and Faustus. Ah, Faustus.”

“I’ve heard of that one, the name.”

Mary’s gaze assumed its own dreamlike quality. “It’s probably his most well known play today, and it’s still performed from time to time. It’s about John Faustus who sells his own soul to the devil in exchange for earthly knowledge and magical power.”

“It sounds like pretty heavy stuff to me.”

“Oh, it is, he even manages to conjure up people from the past like Helen of Troy, in the flesh. Which reminds me, I must read the Iliad again, it’s so important.”

Elena began to smile. “Now I’ve read that, such a great story, but so brutal. I can see why Kit Marlowe would use references from it.”

Mary stood up, looking restless. “A war that lasted ten years, all over Paris of Troy kidnapping Helen of Sparta, but maybe that’s a sounder pretext than some of our modern wars.”

“It’s all so tragic.” Elena was playing with her hair. “But tell me, if Marlowe was so great, why don’t I know more about him? What happened to him?”

“He was murdered, Dear.”

Elena looked shocked. “But wait, I saw him die, in bed. I think. Assuming it was him…”

“It seems poor Marlowe overstepped the mark one too many times, in his own way a bit like poor John Faustus. He died in a supposed tavern brawl in London in 1593, I believe.”

“Right, but then what could he have meant when he said that I destroyed him?”

“I think he was referring to this verse.” Mary was pointing again at the portrait. “It’s the reverse of what a phoenix does.”

Elena looked back blankly at Mary.

Mary moved over to the fireplace. “You see the phoenix, in mythology, rises from its own ashes.”

“I get that, but Marlowe is saying it in reverse?”

“Kind of, Dear, kind of. I’m pretty sure it can’t be a mistake.”

“You wouldn’t go to all that trouble of having your portrait done with a mistake on it. But what does he actually mean? It’s very negative and obscure.”

Mary looked back at the portrait. “You see his pose, the folded arms? In Elizabethan portraiture this pose means ‘I keep secrets’.”

“Ok, meaning..?

“It means precisely that. That’s his real career, if you like, he was as an intelligencer.”

Elena shrugged.

“A spy, in other words, Dear. The English secret service was in its infancy then, all tied up with the on-going conflict with imperial Spain and other Catholic countries. He would play roles, portray himself as someone he was not so he could infiltrate enemy organisations and find out about their plans. That’s why I don’t believe all the negative stuff written about him, you can’t necessarily take the things he said and did at face value. And he was doing this sort of thing while he was still at university.”

“So he probably worked for the government.”

“Yes, for his queen and they certainly protected him more than once, got him out of some sticky situations which were all to do with his role as an intelligencer.”

“And all these plays you’ve told me about, he did all that in his spare time?”

Mary chuckled. “It seems that way, but, then ‘I know not what seems’, my Dear.”

“Which reminds me.” Elena, opened her laptop and searched for Christopher Marlowe. “Hm.”

“What is it?”

“He was christened on February 26 1564 in Canterbury.”

Mary pointed a finger at Elena. “The number twenty three you saw in your first dream. Was this dream, this ghost, or whatever he was, trying to tell you he was born on February 23, three days before his christening?”

“Isn’t it true that babies were baptised within a few days after birth back then.”

“Exactly right.”

Elena continued on her laptop, using astrological software which calculated birth charts. Allowing for the change over back to the older Julian calendar still being used in late Elizabethan times, she brought up the midday chart for February 23, 1564, set for Canterbury, where Christopher Marlowe was born.

“I don’t believe it.” Elena was ushering Mary towards the chart.

“Incredible, Dear, simply incredible. Pluto, Hades himself, almost exactly conjunct his Sun in Pisces when he was born. What are the chances of that?”

She put down the laptop.

“Are you alright, Elena?”

“I’m sorry, I’ve just had one of those shivers go up my spine. I’m like you, I don’t believe in coincidences either. It’s as if he really was speaking allegories to me from beyond the grave, four hundred years after he died. But why? And how is any of this real?”

copyright Milly Reynolds 2020

Poem: ‘Take Heed’

photo of perched common blackbird
Photo by Jozef Fehér on Pexels.com

This morning I heard the blackbird’s song,
a sound of hope, that is spring on its way.
Now I listen to the sounds of nature,
look for significant shapes in the sky,
rather than heed the rumour and ruse,
shenanigans of the twisted minds of men

copyright Francis Barker 2020

‘The Kissing Game’ Chapter 9, Short Story Serialisation, by Milly Reynolds

silhouettes of couple kissing against sunset
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Elena had taken herself off to the spare room, the very room where Michael had said she had sleep walked in to the previous night. One thirty and she still wasn’t asleep, she was simply too apprehensive, too much going on in her head. Once more she lay back and opened another book she’d borrowed from Mary. She came across a reference to the fact that most children were baptised within two or three days of birth, at least until more recent times. This was because of the much higher rates of child mortality. It made her think. With that thought in her mind, she lay the book down and closed her eyes. 

The room was dark, quite small. Long curtains were closed, just a peep of light came through a gap. Outside there were distant voices, so she opened the curtain a touch to see. It was the canal or river she had seen before, though there was less activity this time, as if it might be evening. As she turned away, she noticed a mirror with an ornate frame on the right wall. Keeping the curtains open, she looked at it. Elena had the clearest blue eyes, a smooth, ivory complexion. She brought a hand to her face, touching the soft flesh.

“I am… quite beautiful,” she whispered.

She recognised the room, the bed in the corner where someone was lying. Walking up to the bed, she recognised him, though he made no move, as if he was asleep. She peered more closely; then he opened his eyes, slightly.

“Elena,” he croaked, weakly, “you have destroyed me.”

She stepped back as he reached out, trying to touch her. “What’s the matter with you? Is it something I’ve done?”

“Elena, you have destroyed me.”

She felt a sudden unease. “What have I done?”

He tried to smile, though it seemed to be difficult. There was pain written all over his face, emotional as well as physical discomfort.

“Just… tell me who you are.”

His hand fell limply by his side, a weak gaze remaining fixed on her where she stood. 

“Don’t go!”

Kneeling down she put a hand in front of his face. There was no breath. She checked the pulse on his wrist: nothing. His candle had burned out. Elena closed his eyes, reached forward and kissed his cheek. Then she sat on the chair next to the bed. Tears began to well up in her eyes, though she wasn’t sure why. Did she know this man? And if so, how?

“I want to come out of this dream now,” she said out loud, wiping her eyes. Yet she remained in the room, apparently present in some time which may have been four hundred years ago. She began to feel queasy, quite strange in fact. So she stood, but had to sit down again, feeling quite faint. She bent down on all fours and was sick into the empty chamber pot by the bed. There was no cloth or tissue to use, so she wiped her mouth on the bed sheet. Suddenly without the strength to get up, she lay on the floor, closing her eyes.

Elena felt the gentle stroking of her hair. Opening her eyes, Michael’s concerned face was examining her own.

“It was quite a shock to find you lying here.”

“Where am I?”

“The toilet, I see you’ve been sick. Something you ate last night, was it?”

“No,” she said, faintly, “I don’t think so. What time is it?”

“Six o’clock. Have you been like this before, recently?”

Elena thought for a few seconds. “A little yes. I thought it was the lack of sleep.”

Their eyes met, instinctively, though neither dare ask that most pertinent question. Michael helped her to her feet and led her back to bed.

“Get some sleep, I’ll take the day off, it won’t matter.”

“I’m not sure I want any sleep.”

“Hm, because of him? This strange kisser fellow?”

“Maybe,” she said, laying down her head, “though I get the feeling that I won’t be seeing much more of him in my dreams.” 

“I like the sound of that. I’ll get you some water.”

copyright Milly Reynolds 2020

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